Editing: ABC's 'Modern Family'
Issue: August 1, 2015

Editing: ABC's 'Modern Family'

Modern Family has remained on the Television Academy’s Emmy nomination list since its premiere in 2009, recognized for and winning numerous awards as Outstanding Comedy Series. This year, among the ABC comedy’s achievements is its “Connection Lost” episode, which took place entirely over various social media devices. It’s being recognized by the Academy for Outstanding Sound Mixing For A Comedy Or Drama Series (Half-Hour) And Animation, but editing the episode (on Avid Media Composer) was also key to its success. According to editor Tony Orcena, “It was definitely a different way to tell a story that a lot of people hadn’t done before — certainly we hadn’t done. There are other examples out there, some short films and commercials that have used that format, but in the [structure] of a half hour television program, no one has done that. I think it succeeded as really unique.”

What do you think made the ‘Connection Lost’ episode so special?

“When you think about it, we never cut. So every act [lasted] for seven or eight minutes, and in the Modern Family style where the camera moves from one scene to the next, to the next. But we don’t have any interviews or any scene changes. It’s continuous. So something like that is very unique. I’m also grateful that it didn’t feel gimmicky — If you think about it, it’s one seven-minute scene, a commercial break, another seven-minute scene, a commercial break. It’s crazy. And I think that’s really unique.”

Was there any special direction given for the episode from show creator Steven Levitan?

“Well, it wasn’t supposed to look like it was cut, but actually, there were hundreds of cuts in every act. For me, the biggest thing was making it feel like an episode of Modern Family, because visually and aesthetically it was so different. And so, we shot the episode over the course of two days, and the way we shot the episode was, we had iPhones and the camera operator held the iPhones and then after would hold the camera. When we were done, I just got a bunch of footage like it was shot on an iPhone, and so I had to figure out what that aesthetic was and how I was going to do that. For all of us, — Steve [Levitan] and Megan [Ganz], one of the other writers — it was us trying to figure out what this was. The first month or so, it was a lot of trial and error, like, how often do we stay close, how often do we do a zoom in and pull out, how do we use the desktop because in some of the early versions we were finding it was really easy to get the 360 lines, with the way the camera was moving so much, so it was finding an aesthetic you can watch and finding that pace that was Modern Family — it has a very quick, snappy pace. Because we were asking the actors to run these seven-minute scenes, sometimes the pace on-set would drop off a little bit, and we’d sometimes have to go another take, but it couldn’t feel like I went to another take. It always had to feel like it was the same shot. That was a lot of the process.”

How do you describe the look and pace of Modern Family?

“We have a quick and snappy pace and then when the jokes land, we usually look for some kind of reaction, so it’s quick, quick, quick. And that was the feel you wanted, that snappy back and forth with the jokes, that people expect from our show.”

What do you think made that episode work so well?

“This episode was really unique in that, normally, I can spend two or three weeks with an episode and this one I worked on for five months straight. The whole aesthetic, the desktop, everything you see, especially all of the blocking, I had to figure out. And that’s something that normally the director would do, so that for me was where I had an opportunity to contribute a little more than I would on another episode.

“One of the other things that was fun for me was, I was really into the idea of finding places to put Easter eggs — the little hidden content that is kind of living there, and so we were constantly looking for where to place them. Things like, ‘we have some content available here, what can we do as a call back to the show history?’ That was a lot of fun. And, that’s also something that normally by the time it gets to the editor, I wouldn’t have a lot of time to contribute to it. So, that was very cool.”

Are there any particular challenges in editing the show?

“The handheld style for me. I had worked on a couple of projects with the handheld docu-style that we use on Modern Family, but it really requires a rethinking of the way you put a scene together and some of the tools you use to manipulate the footage. But there are a lot of things on a handheld that you can do that you can’t do on a more traditional style program, like be able to cheat takes — and things like that — and so, for me, it was really just understanding the format and the style we shoot in and what it’s strengths and limitations were.” 

What kind of feedback did you get after the episode aired?

“I try to stay away from the whole Twitter thing, but with this episode, I couldn’t help it. I was clicking refresh constantly. And the feedback was overwhelming. There were people who thought it would be a gimmick — an apple commercial — and it’s hard to win them over because they were going in with a pre-conceived notion. But when I read reviews where they said they thought it would be that but they really enjoyed it, that meant the world to me.”

Where did the idea for this episode come from?

“This was something that Steve came up with, with his daughters away at college. And, we wanted to try something new and different and exciting and tell a story that’s inline with our show and the ‘modern’ in the Modern Family. Whenever you do something like that, there’s an opportunity to fail. And today, I think there are people looking for that because it’s more interesting. We were able to pull it off and it felt like an episode of Modern Family. People watched it and forgot about whatever you thought the gimmick of the show would be and it was just an episode, and that’s how you tell that story. You try to tell that story any other way, and you couldn’t do it. This story told the way we told it was the best possible way to tell that story.

"Also, it was so important to everyone that the episode felt real. For example, the iPhone rings. Typically, you speed up the ringing so you can get two or three rings in before somebody picks up. But in real life, three phone rings takes about 15 seconds. And, so, you can’t really have three phone rings, you don’t have 15 seconds to waste, so in one of my first edits, I was speeding up the rings and Steve’s first comment was, ‘these iPhone rings are too fast.’ So we had to find a timing for those rings that was a little sped up, for our needs, but that were also paced enough that it felt like your phone was really ringing. That’s the attention to detail that he wanted us to pay to the episode.” 

Were you happy with the end result?

“Absolutely! But it’s funny, when you spend that much time on something, I’m like, ‘oh I should have done that’ or ‘I should have done this.’ But I couldn’t be more proud of it. It was an amazing opportunity to be a part of something like that to try and do something different.”